blogbook -- Assuming White Arguments and False Binaries

Entry 36

Over the last five posts, we’ve been looking at the CCSS language standards, but what about the CCSS’s writing standards? In the writing standard group (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.9-10.1), the first anchor standard is broken up into five standards for ninth and tenth graders (standards A-E). The first broad anchor standard states: “Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content.” It seems straightforward enough. The key element in this anchor standard is “argument” as opposed to persuasion. The key contexts that students are to orient themselves toward are “discipline-specific.” It is a decidedly textual standard, but then it is a “writing” standard.

I’m gonna avoid a deep discussion of the obvious problem with this standard, that is the eurocentric and white supremacist assumptions of what counts as “arguments” and “discipline-specific.” This is similar to what  LuMing Mao has discussed as a problem with many comparative rhetorics, that of “euroamerican-centrism.” This problem is one in which the terms of engagement of any rhetorical act or event is framed and understood through a comparison of what Christopher Tindale describes as a “‘dominant’ Greco-Roman tradition.” That tradition is tacitly understood as the standard by which to understand anything as viable rhetoric, and dictates the terms by which something like “argument” is understood.” And as you’ll see shortly, the tacit terms that make for argument and rhetoric have bearing on this CCSS. Tindale explains that “the tacit use of Greek rhetoric as the standard of comparison bears witness to the difficulty of seeing the unfamiliar in terms of anything but what is familiar” (note 240). The CCSS assumes a euroamerican-centristic white standard of argument and what is taken for granted as common in all disciplines. 

Let’s look more carefully at the standard and what it’s calling for, which I argue is so ubiquitous in secondary and postsecondary writing courses that language teachers of all stripes take it as commonsensical. In a white paper titled, “5 Things Every Teacher Should Be Doing To Meet the Common Core State Standards,” Lauren Davis, Senior Editor for Eye on Education, lists one of the five items as, “teach argument, not persuasion.” She explains that the CCSS do not consider these two terms as synonymous. Quoting from Appendix A of the CCSS, she states: 

persuasive writing might “appeal to the audience’s self-interest, sense of identity, or emotions,” whereas a logical argument “convinces the audience because of the perceived merit and reasonableness of the claims and proofs offered rather than either the emotions the writing evokes in the audience or the character or credentials of the writer.” (note 241)

This explanation makes clear the stance the student writer is to take in their languaging efforts in school. They are to be logical, reasonable, perhaps emotionless, or maybe dispassionate. Good writing, according to this standard, appeals to logic and reason only, just as Aristotle has been interpreted in classrooms (note 242). Non-standard writing is persuasion-based, meaning it focuses on appealing to the emotions of the audience or the identity of the writer, or the audience’s “self-interest.”

To make the point clear, Davis offers a table that places in binary opposition these two ways of writing, “Persuasion vs. Argument.” It lists the common features of each kind of writing in a lopsided binary. Argument, the table explains, “[c]onsists of a thesis/claim, evidence, concession/refutation, and a more formal style,” while persuasion “[u]ses techniques such as bandwagon, plain folks, glittering generalities, name calling, and snob appeal” (note 243). Setting up persuasion as merely writing “techniques” that use self-interested appeals and fallacies that typically ignore evidence or ethics is itself a straw man fallacy. This argument ignores those persuasive practices that are ethical yet appeal to emotions and the ethos or character of the writer/speaker. And so, Davis’ (and the CCSS’) framing of persuasion vs. argument is a false binary. Both kinds of writing have merit, but more important, they are not so mutually exclusive.

For instance, one can persuade using the elements that Davis lists as argument, or make an argument using the persuasive elements she and the CCSS lists. Take a “sense of identity.” Compelling and ethical arguments are made all the time that appeal to our humanity, that is, to the ways readers and writers/speakers share in a common humanity or a common set of definitional values and characteristics (e.g. we are all “free” and have “inalienable rights”). The “evidence” in such cases often are the tacit agreements that are shared between audience and writer/speaker about their common humanity. 

Aristotle spoke of these kinds of arguments as enthymemes, or an argument that leaves out one of the logical parts that make its syllogistic logic. Either the major premise, minor premise, or conclusion is not stated when arguing because it’s often more rhetorically effective to do so (note 244). According to a strict reading of the CCSS that focuses on “arguing” not “persuading,” writing enthymemes is bad because you’re trying to persuade, not argue. An often used example of enthymeme is: I’m human, so I am mortal. The missing part of the logic (the syllogism) is “all humans are mortal.” But my audience and I likely share that part of the logic, so me saying it will be redundant and less rhetorically effective since it could sound like I think my audience is stupid, or I’m making obvious and unnecessary points. In fact, I’d likely just say, “I’m mortal” or “I’m only human.” Everything else is implied. But this efficient way of persuading is a bad argument, according to the CCSS standard, because I’ve not stated or offered all the parts to my argument, such as my evidence or assumptions about key ideas or terms.

John F. Kennedy
Maybe that is too simple of an example. Consider a more complex argument, John F. Kennedy’s July 15, 1960 acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination for President, given in Los Angeles, in which he appeals to a set of common values and history, all of which could be questioned and contested, yet most Americans then and today likely consider JFK’s argument ethically sound and rhetorically effective.

For the harsh facts of the matter are that we stand on this frontier at a turning-point in history. We must prove all over again whether this nation--or any nation so conceived--can long endure--whether our society--with its freedom of choice, its breadth of opportunity, its range of alternatives--can compete with the single-minded advance of the Communist system.

Can a nation organized and governed such as ours endure? That is the real question. Have we the nerve and the will? Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only new breakthroughs in weapons of destruction--but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space and the inside of men's minds?

Are we up to the task--are we equal to the challenge? Are we willing to match the Russian sacrifice of the present for the future--or must we sacrifice our future in order to enjoy the present?

That is the question of the New Frontier. That is the choice our nation must make--a choice that lies not merely between two men or two parties, but between the public interest and private comfort--between national greatness and national decline--between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of "normalcy"--between determined dedication and creeping mediocrity. (note 245)

I’ve bolded in the excerpt above the places where I hear JFK appealing to a set of national values and goals, ones he doesn’t try to offer evidence of, and that is smart in this context. The values identified are also formulated as binaries that arguably are false or at least too simple and questionable, but they are effective. Kennedy places some of the binary choices in memorable rhetorical figures, such as antimetabole, where the orator repeats words but reverses the grammatical order (e.g. “sacrifice of the present . . . sacrifice our future”). These binaries frame the “decision” he’s referencing, perhaps the coming election, as one with two choices, the right one and the wrong one.

 There is a paradox in my reading of JFK’s speech though, and the CCSS doesn’t lend itself to teaching its important lessons to students. The lessons are pretty important for our daily languaging. While we might criticize such a speech in terms of lacking an “argument,” or its lack of evidence for the claims and ideas it puts forward, it is also arguably a brilliant piece of rhetoric, one that is compelling, persuasive, and ethical enough for its context. These are important lessons students should understand and practice. 

JFK’s context was a cold war context. Earlier in the speech, Kennedy alludes to the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the ramping up of the “space race,” a key aspect of the cold war’s nuclear arms race. The USSR had already launched the first human-made satellite into space in 1957, using an R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile. Even if we might question some of the ethics and assumptions that hold this speech together, it’s still a powerful piece of writing (and speech), artfully done, that responds in compelling ways to the historical moment. 

Another part of the historical context is that JFK would run against Richard Nixon and beat him. This context is vital to success in this rhetorical situation, and understanding the ways in which JFK uses commonplaces framed in binaries but stays away from too carefully defining any of the terms in those binaries is instructive. If he had defined his terms, he’d risk not achieving his rhetorical goal since that would offer more ways to disagree with him. Let your audience fill in their own definitions for terms like “normalcy,” “mediocrity,” and “decline.” But likely most of his audience, then and today, understood him as a “good man,” therefore trustworthy. We don’t need all those definitions. We don’t really want to argue with JFK. And this appeal to his own ethos is important in rhetoric since its beginnings in Western traditions, which I’ll come back to below, but it forms part of the paradox that the CCSS doesn’t really help students explore. 

There are other “persuasive techniques” listed as bad by this anchor standard that are equally important to use, even if paradoxically so. What about an “audience’s self-interest”? One could argue that this is a driving force behind all evidence marshalled to make a point, regardless of its nature. Does not JFK consider his audience’s self-interest when making his arguments, and isn’t that important to do in such cases, in all cases? Is it not in most readers’ self-interest to consider, say, textual evidence when discussing with others the merits and flaws of a novel? Is it not also equally important to consider our emotional responses as readers of such textual evidence in a novel? 

The point is: What our interests and emotional responses are to words matter to what we understand as evidence for anything. Putting aside the strawman elements of the binary that Davis creates in the CCSS, all languaging and communicating share in all three Aristotelian appeals (logos, pathos, ethos), so they are not cleanly separable, nor should they be. Writing to persuade and writing to argue are not so easily parted. They are always interlinked strands in our language cords. But this is just a Western, “Greco-Roman” way of understanding rhetoric and argument. It’s not the only way to frame such things, nor the only way to teach languaging in diverse classrooms. But the CCSS sticks to a strict interpretation of “argument” that neglects the paradoxes inherent in all languaging, non-persuasion that persuades, non-arguments that argue. 

Davis’ table sets flawed and fallacious techniques against “a more formal style.” According to this binary, a writer either uses mere technique or a real writing style. They apparently are not the same. And good writing style is decidedly logocentric in this model. Yet much good languaging I’ve experienced pays careful attention to more than logos, as JFK’s speech illustrates. Our arguments are often not simply about claims and evidence alone. They are about understanding the character of the people in a debate, their interests and concerns, and acknowledging the emotional aspects of the things discussed. They are about what circumstances we are currently in and how they may affect people in a variety of ways. They are about the affective dimensions of the words used and the people in the exchange. 

Ancient Greek orators referred to some of these things as the kairos, or opportune moment, of an argument (note 246). It is knowing what to say at the right time in order to have the most effective or persuasive impact. But as the first century CE Roman teacher and rhetor Quintilian reminds us, rhetoric is the art of vir bonus, dicendi peritus, or “the good citizen skilled in speaking” (note 247). That is, Quintilian understood that to be effective as an orator, you couldn’t just have good words, be a good speaker, you had to be a good citizen, and be known as such. Earlier in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, the Athenian teacher Isocractes had similar ideas about what made for good citizen-orators (note 248). So we’ve always had mixed in our words and how we judge them as evidence or something else a sense -- perhaps only a felt sense at times -- of the writer’s or speaker’s ethos, character, or “goodness.” We’ve also drawn on our past feelings and emotional responses concerning the speaker, their words, or the ideas expressed. Imagine, for instance, President Joe Biden, claiming in all seriousness to “make America great again.”

We might say that all languaging is always about how our languaging makes both our claims and evidence, which is not completely logocentric. In this way, perhaps there is more truth to Gorgias’ ideas about words being magical, bewitching their listeners (note 249). I’d add that they cast their spells on the spellcaster too. No one is immune. Languaging, then, is about how we understand and language as humans with other humans who all exist together on this planet. Yes, it is wise to focus attention on claims, evidence, and refutations when arguing in writing, but it is also foolish only to do so. And it is foolish to think that one’s readers or audience will only do so. 

Davis’ reiterating of the CCSS priorities in her table creates this false choice using an inaccurate and incomplete definition of persuasion and argumentation. Learning writing is not deciding between good style or bad technique. Why? Because these are not inherent features of our words. Learning languaging draws on both and more. Our languaging is made through exchanges, judged by people with particular perspectives and biases in particular situations that help construct good style or bad technique, or something else. 

In its fullest and most ethical sense, learning to language, say in writing, is learning how to understand and respond to what has made some styles good to some people and bad or inappropriate to others. It is also learning whose ideas of language have dictated what is appropriate or “standard” in particular languaging contexts in order for us to decide if we want to abide by such standards or disregard them for ones that meet our language purposes and needs today. 

A real-life test can demonstrate what I’m saying. When have people’s emotions or the credentials of writers not been important to what they say and how they are read or heard by others in the world? We never have arguments or discussions in a vacuum. Arguments never come from nowhere or no one. It is unwise to ignore where an argument comes from, who says it, how people might react emotionally to those words, what we know about its author, and where their interests lie. Would you really judge what a Democratic politician says in the same way you would a Republican, or what Fox News offers, or CNN? What about an argument from a member of the European People’s Party? What about a life-long, trusted friend next to someone you met yesterday in a coffee shop? Or what about a “pro-life” argument from a professed liberal woman who had been raped and had a baby from that union versus the same argument from a conservative Christian man? Would each person’s words not also be tempered with what you know (or don’t know) about them, how you feel or have felt about the people and the word-ideas circulating in the exchange? We don’t just read or hear or judge words alone. They come loaded, and often we, the readers and audiences, load them. In fact, that is the only way to make meaning out of others’ words. You have to load them with meaning that you have access to.

Shouldn’t we help students draw on all these things together as they assess and form their arguments in writing? Shouldn’t our students try to do what arguments try to do, persuade, or not persuade, identify, or argue, or not argue, or something else, something that may seem crazy? To teach argument as if it was about making and evaluating claims and evidence, about logos for logos’ sake alone, about being dispassionate and “reasonable,” participates in at least two habits of white language (HOWL), a stance of neutrality, objectivity, and apoliticality, and an individualized, rational, controlled self (see post 28). Using these habits as a primary yardstick for what writing is and how we assess it in schools sets up to fail many BIPOC and other students, such as working class and poor white students, who don’t usually use such elite white language habits already in the ways the CCSS assumes is “standard,” ways that are mostly textual in nature. And it ignores and stifles -- punished by use of a singular white standard -- the languages and diversity of languaging that already occurs in and through our students.  

First page of the NCTE Students Right to Their Own Language
Let me emphasize. This is not the same as saying that we shouldn’t pay close attention to logos, reason, and evidence from discipline-specific sources in our classrooms and activities. I’m speaking against grading by such standards, or working from the assumption that there is one standard, which also works against the idea that students actually have a right to their own languaging. I’m speaking against the idea that standards are the same thing as students’ learning. Standards are not synonymous with learning, just as grades are rarely a full reflection of the time and labors that went into a written product graded. 

I should also say that I’m not suggesting that BIPOC or working class and poor white students cannot achieve or practice proficiently the kind of logocentric, euroamerican-centristic writing that the CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.9-10.1 asks for. I’m not saying that such students are not smart enough or capable enough to meet such a language standard. They are. I’m saying we cannot act as if there is one standard when there isn’t and when doing so hurts so many students. Hearing this as a problem, which many have said is a kind of racism that thinks little of the language capacities of students of color or lowers standards for them, assumes that the standard of language in the CCSS is the standard, that it’s universal, that demanding that one standard of everyone ain’t political, that it as a standard does no harm because it didn’t harm them. This argument ignores the uneven, unfair, and racist politics from which such standards are produced and reproduced in classrooms. 

Those who hear in my words above that I’m saying that BIPOC students are not as language proficient as their white middle class peers are hearing me through their affective attachments to the words I use, not the evidence or scholarship offered. They are HOWLing. They assume their elite white orientation to language and its judgement is universal for all, assume that language can be about textual argumentation and not about embodied political persuasion. This HOWLing can happen even if someone does not identify as elite or even white. You can be colonized and fight for the colonizer if you’ve bought into the ideas and language that oppress you or oppress others like you. 

The anchor standard also falsely assumes that discussing claims and evidence, focusing on logos, is a neutral, objective, or apolitical writing style. But as I’m sure you know already that there is no such thing as an apolitical writing style. The politics of a logocentric writing style, like the one promoted by Davis and the CCSS, is a white politics. It says focusing on words and arguments alone, disregarding the people and their emotions, is apolitical and neutral -- that such a stance is even possible. But it is not. It is simply a bias to see such language habits as unbiased (more HOWLing). My politics sees all habits of language as historically coming from particular groups of language users, thus all habits are biases and not neutral. We language through our politics, not despite them. 

As an example, we can see the politics in Davis’ own words in her binary table and discussion, which she is taking from the CCSS materials. In the same fashion that Plato’s Socrates decried rhetoric as a mere “knack” and “cookery” (or not medicine, meaning it was bad), Davis lumps anything not a logocentric argument as mere techniques, not legitimate style (note 250). So Davis’ and the CCSS’ priorities, their politics, favor logos, favor the close reading of texts over other things like who’s saying what, why, and the emotional aspects of the arguments and words, then calls this logocentric argumentation “formal style” because it disregards the human aspects of arguments, or rather it disregards the overt subjectiveness of all things, especially languages and logics. The terms Davis uses subtly make logocentric argument preferable and neutral sounding and everything else bad persuasion and fallacious. The key to seeing Davis’ bias and politics, however, is in the words she uses to frame things and the false binary she creates with the table, which of course she’s getting from the CCSS materials. 

Everyone always chooses their terms, evidence, and words when languaging, then we arrange them in a particular way. These writing behaviors, choosing and arranging, are dictated by our politics, biases, positions in the world, and what we can see and reach. When we choose and arrange words, or evidence, we exercise our biases and our politics. No one gets to be neutral. No one has a god-view on any subject. And our words follow suit. Usually the concern about admitting and drawing on our emotions or our unique perspectives and histories in our arguments is that these things get in the way of a balanced and fair assessment of claims or evidence. But that assumption is just more HOWLing, a stance of neutrality, objectivity, and apoliticality in a thoroughly subjective, political world of language. We don’t get to avoid our human-ness. 

In truth, our perspectives and histories simply reveal our subjectiveness -- our natures as subjects -- that creates language as claims and evidence for us. We are subjects in the world who are bound and limited, who have biases and histories, who can only see from our own, unique, constrained place in a vast landscape of thought and words. What we are not is neutral and objective. No one has access to such a viewpoint. And our judging of language comes out of our subjective positionings by necessity. Consider some of those fallacies that Davis and CCSS see as a part of bad writing and persuasion. 

Many logical fallacies are relative to the position the languageling is in. If I said 9 out of 10 scientists from across various universities agree that COVID vaccines are safe and effective, then I offered you the information from the CDC website on vaccine safety, the names of those scientists and universities, as well as a listing of their findings in published studies such as the ones listed on the John Hopkins Medicine website, you may believe that this is a good, sound argument for getting vaccinated. But it ain’t been that persuasive to millions of people, and the ethical issue at stake, at least as I can see it, is community safety, and so arguably, the rhetoric around COVID vaccines should be a persuasive appeal, not just a good argument. 

Many, as you know, still refuse to get vaccinated. Is it just a case of fake news and false pseudoscience reproduced on the Internet? Maybe. Or maybe there is also another dynamic at work. Could the logic of following the advice of 9 out of 10 scientists seem like a bandwagon fallacy? Could there be a viewpoint that is suspicious of elite scientists at universities who are out of touch with the typical person on the street? Could a suspicion of government and universities be reasonable given the history of such institutions in U.S. history? Of course, yes to all these questions. How we decide, or make sense of such “arguments,” depends on our positioning, our subjectivity in the world. And this means, argument and persuasion are not just intertwined but always political in nature, always human and embodied, always filled with emotion and affects. We must work with those politics, but first our students should understand them. 

Such fantasies of neutral positioning and purely textual and rational arguments are just whitely abstractions that hide a white orientation to the world labelled as a neutral and objective position. Much of the time, people pretend to be neutral by saying that neutrality is just focusing on logos, considering only “the facts.” This is a habit of white language (a stance of neutrality, objectivity, and apoliticality) encapsulated in this CCSS anchor standard. It becomes white language supremacy as a standard in grading practices, which activates another habit of white language, an unseen, naturalized orientation to the world. That is, we are all expected to exercise the same orientation to the world and language, or be seen as biased and merely persuading, if we accept the CCSS standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.9-10.1 at its face. 

It isn’t that I think concerning ourselves closely with claims, evidence, and reasoning -- logos -- of written arguments isn’t important. These things are very important. But doing so ain’t never gonna be an objective or neutral practice. And we shouldn’t think of it as such or teach in ways that suggest it. We will differ on what constitutes evidence or the facts of any case. One person’s logical evidence is another’s fake news, or strawman, or name calling, or snob appeal, or bandwagon fallacy. It’s harmful to our students to act as if there is one orientation to have, or to deny each person their own biases and orientations. We don’t need to separate logos from those who offer it, or the emotions and affects that conjure our decisions from such languaging. The racial, gendered, and economic subject positions that people embody in the world are important to understand, pay attention to, and account for when teaching languaging practices.

But this likely means we should probably stop thinking in terms of teaching “argument” or even “persuasion,” and start teaching languaging


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